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Big Picture Image
Ross Collins
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Thomas, Frances What If? Hyperion, 1999. 24 p
ISBN 0-7868-0482-3   $15.99    3-5 yrs

We see a wide range of monsters around here, ranging from ferocious to friendly, carnivorous to cuddly, so it takes more than just another set of horrible horns to turn our heads. In Little Monster, What If? offers one of the most photogenic-illustrationogenic?-beasties we've seen in awhile, and he exudes the irresistible charm of vulnerability.

Little Monster's particular vulnerability is the fear of abandonment, which is apparently every bit the problem for fictional monsters that it is for real children. LM's worried about the unknown, quizzing his mom on the possibility of his waking up to a "big . . . black . . . hole in the middle of the floor" that gets bigger and bigger and bigger, leading to a series of increasingly terrible events ("and then there wasn't a ceiling and the sky was all horrible and I fell down and down and down. . . . And then the house caught on FIRE!") ending with "falling forever and ever and ever," all because when he called his mother, she didn't answer, and she couldn't come and help him because she had gone away.

That's a terrific set of genuine fears-holes, fire, falling, and ultimately abandonment-with the authentic face of childhood. For many small children, holes are the dark corners where nonexistence breeds, just waiting to suck kids in and nullify them; fires are angry power without any control, capable of destruction from the most innocuous starts (there is also, for good measure, a "big, big spider" crawling through Little Monster's nightmare scenario). The illustrations keep these fears in check, but they don't diminish them. The hole is big, large enough to engulf Little Monster and his bed in one swallow (we see it from above while Little Monster peers over the brink) as it gapes across the spread's gutter, and when our hapless hero finds the fire he falls through a red world of flames. Immediately, however, he also falls back into a safe reality, wherein his calmly comforting mother agrees that his imagined events would be scary but takes charge with a different scenario: waking up to a breakfast of pancakes followed by an outing notable for the purchase of festive balloons and tasty treats and a cozy return to home and bed, which option Little Monster finds preferable indeed.

The text balances the fears and consolation well: Thomas manages both a soothingly incantatory quality in the I-thou dialogue and an individual turn of phrase without straying from the lexicon of credibility. (It's a particularly nice touch when Mother spins her way through similes, talking about buying "a red balloon like a red jewel," a "green balloon like the green sea," and "a blue balloon like the blue sky," and Little Monster insists also on a lovely purple balloon that's "like . . . a lovely purple balloon.") In Collins' oversized illustrations, the clean sweeps of color balance the creative monstrosities of mother and son, who evince bug eyes worthy of Victoria Chess, but their benign anteaterly snouts, stripy ears, feet, and tails, and friendly knobbly horns make them a species unto themselves, cuddly and homely and absurd. Little Monster's body language is as eloquent as his spoken words: he's prick-eared in alarm at his plummet, he bounces gleefully off of the porch at the start of the outing, he gazes, slightly ruefully, at his flaming marshmallow (which, in the secure evening scene with Mother present, is all that the destructive power of fire can manage), and he flops, ears sagging and limbs weighted down with somnolence, on the arm of the chair before heading to bed. Gently imaginative without being coy or fluffy, this is a solid reminder of parental love and security that will be warmly welcomed by sleepy little monsters.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor

Big Picture Image
September's Bulletin cover illustration
by Ross Collins from
What If?,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Hyperion Books for Children

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This page was last updated on September 1, 1999.